Filmmaker and onetime Muppet-master Frank Oz wants everyone to know that his new comedy, "Death at a Funeral," is rated R. So was "The Score" (2001), his most recent film other than the PG-13 misfire "The Stepford Wives" (2004), so it's odd that he tells you this twice. But, hey, this is Cookie Monster! Miss Piggy! Grover! Bert! YODA!! He helped get you, me and our kids through childhood - and someday their kids, too. If he wants us to tell people about the rating, well, what can we say but, "Rated R this new film is."
Oz wouldn't smile at that, nor at much of anything. Unlike his late mentor, the jovial Jim Henson, he's strictly business. And puppeteering, it turns out, was the family business. Oz, ne Oznowicz, was born in Hereford, England, raised in Belgium from age 6 months, and then brought with his immigrant family to Montana when he was 5 years old. Dad Isidore "Mike" Oznowicz later relocated the clan to Oakland, Calif., to pursue his trade as a window dresser and his life's calling as a puppeteer - forming the Oznowicz Family Marionettes and becoming, well, the Yoda of Bay Area puppetry.
Oz was in high school when he met Henson at a puppeteer convention in 1960, and began working for him two years later. Oz made his TV debut working the right hand of Rowlf, the piano-playing Muppet dog, on "The Jimmy Dean Show." Oz himself would become Henson's right hand for decades of commercials, specials, "Sesame Street," "The Muppet Show" and movies before mostly quitting puppetry and vocal work in 2000. What about Yoda in the upcoming "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" TV series? Forget what it says on the Internet Movie Database, Oz tells you, it ain't him.
The man is a movie director, starting with "The Dark Crystal" (1982) and proceeding through hits including "Little Shop of Horrors" (1986), "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988), "What About Bob?" (1991), "In & Out" (1997) and "Bowfinger" (1999). Over oatmeal at a Manhattan diner, Oz, 63, spoke with frequent Newsday contributor Frank Lovece.
"Death at a Funeral" is this wry, sophisticated, British drawing-room comedy, except for one really disgusting gross-out scene involving ...
Please don't write about what that is. That'll give things away. Try not to.
OK. We'll just say "a very gross gag."
It's not that gross! If it was more than that, it'd be gross. But it's honest to the scene. I usually like restraint in comedy. I like to hold back. It was much, much grosser . Much grosser. And I toned it way down.
I actually saw two people walk out of a preview screening when it came on.
Two people walked out - that's good. I like that. I'm glad to hear that.
Because I like being a bit subversive. I don't try to please everybody. I don't like pleasing everybody.
And ironically, you've performed some of the world's most popular characters.
But I'm not directing them. Directing and performing are two different things. And this is an R-rated movie, so I don't care. I couldn't care less.
What happened with "The Stepford Wives"?
I didn't listen to myself.
Who were you listening to?
With a movie that expensive, I start listening to a lot of people all around me, producers, other people ... and I think, "Gosh, he's paying so much money I really should listen to him." And for the first time I listened too much and I didn't listen to my instincts. It was my fault completely. And I love many, many things about "The Stepford Wives," but it takes more than that, it takes governing thought.
I hate to use the word "vision," but it's a synonym for vision. The v-word is often used in an artsy-fartsy manner, so I sometimes use "governing thought."
So ... Bert and Ernie - alternative lifestyle?
Well, that's an old saw, an old question, it's kinda boring right now. I dunno - y'know?
You've said it took years to develop Bert as a character. How so?
Characters don't happen in a day. Even Yoda. The feeling I got off the bat, but the character I had to work on for a long time. I wasn't comfortable with Bert the first year because he was kinda boring - and then I realized that'll be his strength. Once I realized I'm doing a character who's boring, we had fun. It was a good contrast with Jim [as Ernie], too.
I remember "The L Song," where Ernie is singing all these lovely, lilting L words, and Bert finally thinks he's got it, and he's proud of what he's come up with, and sings, "La, la, la ... LINOLEUM!" That was it, the perfect boring L word!
Well, that's the writers.
Yeah, but you delivered it! And Ernie was so patient with Bert, singing, "No, Bert, listen to meeeee/L is such a lovely letter /In words like licorice/ and lace/The letter L lights up your face/So why not la-la-la-la-laa with meee!"
(Oz is stone-faced, not quite knowing what to say.)
Ahhh ... so, people don't come up to you and do "Sesame Street" songs?
Do people ever come up to you and do Yoda?
Once in a great while. It stops very fast.